BY JATHAN JANOVE
In recent years, the Rose City has suffered more than its share of woes – exploding houselessness (see sidebar below), untreated mental illness, proliferating substance abuse, social unrest, pandemic and rising crime. For this article, I interviewed two community leaders emblematic of those striving to make a positive difference.
Kay Toran is the longtime president and CEO of Volunteers of America-Oregon (voaor.org). VOA-O provides an array of services including residential and outpatient treatment, counseling, housing and economic support services, and other resources to treat substance use disorder and co-occurring mental health disorder.
Jordan Schnitzer is a longtime businessman, philanthropist and Jewish community member. He and his affiliated organizations have contributed millions of dollars to combat these problems.
They both are passionate about supporting our community during these Book-of-Job-like times.
“I’ve been impressed with many local organizations that have made real positive differences in the lives of people struggling with poverty, crime, addiction and mental illness,” says Schnitzer. “These include VOA-O, a hidden gem in our community. Kay has done an incredible job, combining compassion, intelligence and sound business sense. I am happy to be a major VOA-O sponsor.”
Toran says that many Jewish leaders such as Schnitzer have been a vital source of support for VOA-O’s mission. And, members of the Jewish community have been aided by the nonprofit’s programs.
“I’d love to see more members of the Jewish community connect with us,” says Toran. “We’d love your support, whether it’s money, time, energy, and caring and commitment to creating a better future.”
She believes a partnership with the Jewish community is a natural fit on many levels (see sidebar).
“As an African-American, I’ve long felt that Jews and the Jewish community have a special understanding of, connection with and support for resolving challenges faced by the African-American community,” she says. “I personally share concern about rising antisemitism and believe the Jewish and African-American communities should stand together against this and all hate.”
Toran believes that involvement can help create desirable synergies between business, government and the nonprofit sectors.
Schnitzer also says that government, business and nonprofits must work together.
He says the city needs a tax strategy “designed to provide the necessary revenue without being punitive or alienating the wealthy.”
“Public entities and private entities must come together and develop a shared strategy,” Schnitzer says, adding that fixing problems with public safety and homelessness will require “more financial support for the treatment courts, like Drug Court.”
Drug Courts are designed to place drug-affected defendants into appropriate treatment programs with close supervision by a single judge familiar with both treatment and the offenders. This model for dealing with drug-dependent and addicted offenders has proven so effective and cost efficient that there are now Drug Courts in every state and even foreign countries, according to the Oregon State Court website.
VOA-O is one organization well-equipped to deal with those challenges.
“We have an incredibly experienced, trained, qualified and dedicated staff that make a positive difference every day in the lives of especially challenged members of our community, ranging from infants to the elderly, to individuals and to families,” says Toran. “We are passionate about helping people get on track with their lives and staying there.”
Schnitzer says he believes the problems can be solved with “collective will.”
“There is still hope for our city, but much must be done – and soon,” he says.
Jathan Janove is an author, columnist, executive coach and organization culture consultant. firstname.lastname@example.org.
Interfaith United in Spirit tackles homelessness
For the past two+ years, homelessness has been a major focus of United in Spirit, a broad-based coalition of religious organizations spearheaded by the Jewish Community Relations Council.
The coalition has hosted summits to convene stakeholders and has continued to meet individually with elected officials and leaders of the nonprofit, business and law enforcement communities. The coalition includes Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Hindu participants.
“We’ve come to a pretty good understanding of the complexity of homelessness but especially the impediments to progress,” says Bob Horenstein, Director of Community Relations for the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland. Those impediments include “obviously the lack of affordable housing … but I think more importantly in the immediate term is the lack of sufficient shelter space and behavioral health and substance abuse services.”
United in Spirit is now focused on an approach used by some 100 communities called Built for Zero from Community Solutions, a process designed to end homelessness.
“It has had some success,” says Horenstein. “Built for Zero basically requires a by-name list of individuals living on the street. … a collection of data about the person who’s living on the street to figure out what that person needs in order to get the help to get them off the street. It also envisions a command center that would coordinate among the various government entities working on this issue.”
“The city and county have signed on to it, but questions remain as to whether it’s being implemented properly,” he adds. “We want to be advocates for an approach that holds out hope for progress.”
“We also met with Erik Cole, the executive director of the Revitalize Portland Coalition … about working in coordination with one another, because I think we have a lot of similar goals,” says Horenstein.
One issue that concerns both groups is a downtown vacancy rate above 30%.
“Businesses have to decide whether to renew their leases, and some of those businesses are leaving the downtown core,” he adds. “That’s a serious problem.”
New leaders, plans and collaborations have given United in Spirit optimism. He said the group is also hopeful given the new leadership, which includes a new governor who is making homelessness a priority, a new Multnomah County chair and a plan presented by the Portland mayor that may offer progress.
“Hopefully, we’re on the road to better times here,” concludes Horenstein.